Mr. Big Shot

The charismatic lawyer and power broker took one last lap in a New River mansion during his run from the law

At 28 degrees latitude, Tenerife, the largest of the Spanish-owned Canary Islands, enjoys the same tropical climate year-round as South Florida. Twelve hundred miles southwest of Madrid and 100 miles off the coast of the Western Sahara, the resort town of Playa de Las Americas offered Hirschfeld beachfront living and the illusion of escaping his tormentors. He cut a dashing figure in his new island sanctuary. He parked his white Rolls on the street in front of his apartment after he had it shipped from Virginia to Cadiz, Spain, and then to Tenerife. Loretta told the media that he'd even bought property on the island, where she visited him in December 1996.

That trans-Atlantic holiday celebration was tempered by the news that Hirschfeld had again been indicted back in Virginia in connection with the early-release case. Federal authorities couldn't enter Spain and grab him legally and didn't even know how the fugitive, whose passport had been confiscated, managed to travel.

Hirschfeld's problems with the law began in the 1970s.
Colby Katz
Hirschfeld's problems with the law began in the 1970s.
Hirschfeld and Ali share a happy moment.
The Virginian-Pilot
Hirschfeld and Ali share a happy moment.

With a U.S. warrant in hand, Spanish National Police officers arrested Hirschfeld at his apartment on January 29, 1997. He sat in jail until May, when he was freed on bail. Conspiracy to write fraudulent letters to get out of prison didn't constitute extraditable offenses under Spanish law. But in June, he was again indicted in Virginia on charges that, while in prison in 1993, he and a pair of inmates conspired to threaten U.S. District Judge Calvitt Clarke Jr. -- the same judge who originally sentenced Hirschfeld to prison and to whom the fake Habitat for Humanity letters had been sent. Convinced he'd be railroaded by Clarke, the inmates told authorities, Hirschfeld allegedly asked them to scare the judge by threatening to break his legs or douse him with acid. That case would hound Hirschfeld until his capture.

In the meantime, Spanish authorities had renewed their interest in his extradition, and Hirschfeld fled the Canaries. As nice as they were, the islands were just too remote, too far from family.

In late 1998, Hirschfeld made his way to Havana. Loretta says the family was never comfortable visiting him on the island, so they would meet in the Bahamas. Hirschfeld also got frequent visits from Dale Cooter, an old friend from Virginia, now a prominent attorney in Washington, D.C.

Cooter says that, during a visit to Cuba in 2000, he spent three days holed up with Hirschfeld at his condo in the resort town of Varadero, trying to strategize. "He was looking to me to point him in the right direction," says Cooter, who was getting cabin fever after so much plotting.

As usual, Hirschfeld had found a way to stand out from the crowd. He had somehow gotten hold of two cars -- a red convertible Mustang and a blue Cadillac -- that were anything but common on the island. The Ford was such a lucky charm that a pair of cops who pulled them over for speeding let them go, even thanked them, just for a look at the engine.

Once, Cooter says, he borrowed the Mustang to go grab a beer and a bite to eat. "Christ, it was like being a movie star," he says. The car attracted a family celebrating their daughter's 16th birthday. When Cooter told them he'd take a photo of her sitting in the car, "you would have thought she'd just won a trip to Disney World."

Back to brass tacks with Hirschfeld, though: That was far less entertaining. Cooter leveled with his pro-bono client.

"Look," Cooter advised, "I understand these charges are bogus. There's a vendetta -- I agree with you. But you haven't been so damned smart here. Your judgment's been poor, and you can't fight the whole world all the time."

Hirschfeld looked at Cooter with tears in his eyes. "You really believe that?" he asked.

"I really do," Cooter replied. It was the only time he'd seen Hirschfeld so emotional, and Cooter tried to reassure him.

"Don't worry about it, Richard. It's just an observation. Calm down," Cooter said. "We'll play the ball where it is and figure out what to do and how to get out of it."

When Cooter visited him again a few months later, he was amazed at how well-connected his client had become with Cuban politicians -- up to and including Fidel Castro, whose policies Hirschfeld privately loathed.

"But I didn't go down there to talk politics with him," Cooter remarks. Instead, it was more of a cleanup visit, not terribly substantive, because of the brick walls Cooter faced in getting help for his client. He remembers they nearly crossed paths in London around the same time -- Hirschfeld could still move about the globe with ease. "I think the Cubans facilitated that somehow," Cooter says.

In Cuba, Hirschfeld gravitated toward posh seaside villas. Though closer to his family, he wasn't satisfied.

"Cuba," Cooter says with a small chuckle, "for a middle-aged white man, has its attractions. But whenever I talked to Richard, he was maudlin about his failure to have access to his wife and kids. He had this slavish devotion to his family. More than one would expect."

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